There are a lot of predictions for the end of Mad Men floating around right now, and many of them are based on scrutinizing past episodes for clues as to the future. But there’s one thing that none of these theories take into account, in light of Sunday night’s episode.
Betty is dead.
That may not immediately trigger any thoughts to you as it relates to Don Draper, but consider this: He has three kids. Sally may be able to live on her own in boarding school, but Don couldn’t expect Henry Francis to support Don’s two boys. Henry may be more of a father to them than Don at this point, but step-dads aren’t granted custody of children in the 1970s.
That means that Don is not on his own. He can’t just settle down in Topeka or Wichita or even Los Angeles and live the rest of his life on the fortune he’s made from McCann Erickson. He has three kids to support, he left behind at least a million by leaving McCann, and, because of his non-compete agreement, he can’t work in advertising in the United States for four more years. And he’s not going to leave his kids behind. He may be travelling across the United States, but he still cares enough about his children to check in with them (as you recall in Sunday night’s episode, he called Sally and said he’d be calling the boys, afterwards).
But we also know this about Don Draper: He’s headed for a rebirth of some sort. That writing is clearly on the wall. He’s shed his Don Draper personae. He’s given up the job. But he can’t just go back to being Dick Whitman. As far as the United States government is concerned, Dick Whitman is dead. Admitting to being Dick Whitman would be tantamount to admitting to fraud. Or identity theft. Or something bigger (we’re dealing with the military here, after all).
So, Don has three kids. He has no wife to take care of them. He has no career in advertising, and he can’t continue working that career. He can’t go back to being “Dick Whitman.” So, what’s left for him?
Let’s back up just a moment. Matthew Weiner was on the Nerdist podcast last week, and I can’t shake one thing he really stressed in talking about Mad Men. He said he does not do symbolism. He was very clear about that. He also said that he does not troll viewers. So, when the flight attendant spilled wine on the white carpet earlier this season, he said there was no symbolic meaning to that. The only thing it demonstrated, he said, is that Don didn’t care about his apartment enough to care that wine was spilled on it. There was nothing deeper to it; Weiner doesn’t trade in symbolism.
There’s another thing that Weiner has said about the finale: He said that it could be “a disaster.” He said that he’s paved the way for a “mixed review,” and that he told his wife and a few writers about the ending of the series years ago, and they suggested it might be “a disaster.”
But in the Nerdist podcast where he said that he doesn’t deal in symbolism, he did say that he likes to “plant” clues and that he takes the series “one episode at a time.” So, based on that, based on the cycle of rebirth, based on the fact that he still has three kids to raise and a non-compete that will keep him out of advertising in America, and the fact that Weiner likes to “plant” clues, where does that leave Don Draper?